Now on Blu-ray: Arrow Video Kills ZOMBIE, LADY SNOWBLOOD, CLASS OF NUKE 'EM HIGH, BLACK SUNDAY & LISA AND THE DEVIL

J Hurtado, Contributing Writer
While I was on hiatus, Arrow Video released a ton of fantastic huge titles on Blu-ray and I'm only beginning to catch up with them. Their output in recent months has somehow managed to raise the bar for cult home video releases and has taken a somewhat sticky reputation and turned it into a massive pile of kudos for titles that are world-beaters. From Italy we get not only Lucio Fulci's magnum opus, Zombie (AKA Zombie Flesh Eaters), but also a trio of Mario Bava classics, including his first directorial efforts, a Tromatic classic in Class of Nuke 'Em High, and a pair of classic chicks-with-swords films in Lady Snowblood 1 & 2. All winners, all worth your money, but here's a little bit more detail for you.

Zombie Flesh Eaters

About 18 months ago Blue Underground released Zombie on Blu-ray to mixed reviews. I really liked it, though some complained about the smeary video quality. I can now say, with side by side comparisons, that Arrow Video's new restoration of this classic is the definitive release of Zombie anywhere in the English speaking world. I reviewed the film back then and here's what I had to say:
Zombie was conceived as a way to cash in on the international success of George Romero's Dawn of the Dead. Dawn of the Dead was titled Zombi is Italy, and this film was Zombi 2, despite sharing nothing with Romero's film apart from undead people walking slowly. However, what was intended as a rip-off took on a life of its own when Fulci put his nasty stamp on it.

While Fulci's zombies were slow-moving, like Romero's, they had a different sort of attitude. Fulci's zombies were mean and they seemed to enjoy, in their undead way, inflicting pain and killing, where as Romero's seemed content with sustenance.  This led to a whole new type of film in which the zombies were not merely a threat, but a villain. Fulci enlisted the assistance of several FX artists in creating his diabolical vision, and their work makes this film a success as much as anything else.
I love Zombie, and Arrow Video's new release is easily the definitive version of the film. Not only is the video improved and more film-like, but the audio track is marginally clearer especially in the case of the English audio.

If you're not a videophile, there's still a lot to recommend as Arrow and High Rising Productions have created a massive pile of extras to sate even the most rabid fan. There is From Romero to Rome, a documentary tracing the rise and fall of the Italian zombie film (featuring our own Shelagh Rowan-Legg as one of the talking heads), Aliens, Cannibals, and Zombies, a forty minute featurette with Zombie star Ian McCulloch regarding his career in Italian genre cinema, The Meat Munching Movies of Gino de Rossi, which looks at some of the finer works of FX artist de Rossi beyond Zombie, a Q&A with the legendary Fabio Frizzi, a favorite of Fulci, a script comparison from the page to the screen with writer Dardano Sacchetti, trailers, TV spots, and more. We get two audio commentaries, a scholarly one with Fulci biographer Stephen Thrower (NIghtmare USA) and Argento biographer Alan Jones, and a less scholarly one with actress Elisa Briganti and High Rising's Calum Waddell. Last, but definitely not least, is a massive booklet packed with interviews, essays, and other scholarly dissection of Zombie from experts of all stripes. This is truly a keeper.

One note of warning: As of this review, most copies of Zombie Flesh Eaters have a brief encoding error that leads them to skip about 6 seconds of the opening credits. No dialogue or action are missed, but to some this is worth worrying about. Arrow Video are aware of the issue and are offering a replacement scheme to solve the problem. You can find the information here.

snowblood.jpgLady Snowblood 1 & 2
Starring the lovely Meiko Kaji, the Lady Snowblood series was an adaptation of a popular manga about a swordswoman bent on revenge. Kaji and director Toshiya Fujita were coming off of a grand success with the Female Prisoner Scorpion series and were attempting to strike gold twice with this extended tale of a dangerous woman hacking dastardly men to bits. The results are, sadly, not as balls-out entertaining as the Female Prisoner films, but solid nonetheless. There is plenty to enjoy about Lady Snowblood, both of them, however it gets bogged down in drama and repetitive flashbacks. Due to the film's low budget, Fujita was only able to shoot with a small amount of film, hence the reusing of key footage to stretch the film out to 90 minutes, which it just barely makes. Lady Snowblood could've used fewer pensive moments and more splash, but what we have is akin to a ronin story like Lone Wolf & Cub, but with less arterial spray.

The second film fares significantly better in my opinion. While for some it appears to be bogged down in political undertones, the film's thematic approach to western encroachment into Japan at a crucial point in the nation's history adds a level of interest that the first film really needed. It also appears to me that there's just more action in Lady Snowblood: Love Song of Vengeance (a misleading title as there is no love song, nor really any vengeance). For that reason I like the second film perhaps a bit more than the first.

Arrow Video's Blu-ray transfer for Lady Snowblood is adequate but not mind blowing. I had some issues with the contrast, as the blacks never really seemed deep enough. The fine detail also suffered a bit, but improving the contrast would've helped ot alleviate that problem as well. That being said, there are no major missteps, just a mediocre Blu-ray transfer. The audio is just fine and I have no real comments other than the fact that it was never distracting enough for me to notice any faults. There is one major extra on the disc and that is a brief interview with Japanese film expert Jasper Sharp who brings much appreciated context to the stories. There is also a marvelous booklet full of essays from others including another expert, Tom Mes. While the transfer won't blow your mind, Lady Snowblood is a good purchase for fans of women with swords.

Class of Nuke 'Em High
While I may have issues with Troma as a business, there's no denying the impact they made on early 80's exploitation cinema in the US. If there is a second feature for which they are best known beyond The Toxic Avenger, this is probably it. Class of Nuke 'Em High is one of the classic punksploitation films of the '80s, right up there with Class of 1984 and Suburbia. In this case the punks are a ridiculous caricature (when weren't they?) but they are entertaining as hell and provide the film with a lot of its darkest humor. Rather than recap, here's what Arrow Video has to say:
At Tromaville High School the kids are revolting. Literally. The irradiated marijuana they've been buying from The Cretins, a tough gang of ex-star pupils turned atomic punks, is turning them into freaks. Girls are giving birth to demon babies, the nerds are developing super strength and there's a monster in the school basement that eats honour roll students for breakfast.

Welcome to State education Troma-style, a place where the science lab is kitted out with lasers and nudity is often compulsory. The Class of Nuke 'Em High will have their work cut out surviving until the final bell, let alone graduation.
This was my first viewing of this little gem and I really had fun with it. It is by now reasonable metric a good film, but it's dumb, violent, and gross, and that's usually enough to get me hooked! Arrow Video's Blu-ray compares favorably to the Troma disc, and the extras are pretty much identical and very typical Troma extras. The big advantage here with Arrow is the extensive booklet and David Hayles essay and amazing Graham Humphreys' artwork, which is worth the double-dip all by itself.

blacksundayuk.jpgBlack Sunday / Lisa and the Devil
For a while there it looked like A Bay of Blood might be the only Bava we'd see from Arrow Video, but thankfully that is decidedly not the case with their recent announcement of at least four Bava Blus. This first pair are probably the most sought after and the reality, in this case, more than lives up to the anticipation. I have already reviewed Black Sunday here, and this is a snip of that review:
Black Sunday is the quintessential Italian witchcraft film, even fifty years later, it hasn't been matched. In fact, I get the feeling that most filmmakers are hesitant to try. The closest we've seen to an attempt to usurp this throne is probably the three mothers trilogy of Dario Argento, but I think that even he'd bow to Bava if given the opportunity. Where Argento goes for the jugular, Bava prefers to slowly strip away the viewer's sanity, making him question things he thinks he already knows and making every new revelation a shock to the system. 

I'm not going to pretend that I have anything new to say about Black Sunday, it is certainly one of the most discussed and written about Italian horror film in existence. I will, however, throw in my two cents to say that the film remains a brilliant example of what gothic horror can be, but may never be again. This is a film worth remastering, saving, contemplating, arguing and coming together over, and cherishing. Black Sunday is superb.
I stand by all of that. That review was of Kino's release last fall, but Arrow's blows that release clean out of the water in several key areas. First of all it includes the re-edited AIP English language version for the first time along side the version we're all used to seeing. It also includes, as a bonus, Bava's directorial debut and the film that started the Italian horror boom, I Vampiri, a work he co-directed with Ricardo Freda. Brought over from a release ages ago is an audio commentary from Bava expert Tim Lucas (also on the Kino edition), but in addition to that we get a Barbara Steele interview, deleted scene, and introduction by Alan Jones. On the Booklet side there are a pair of new essays from Matt Bailey and Alan Jones as well as stunning new artwork from Graham Humphreys. Sadly the disc is Region B locked, but if you're able, this is the one to beat, by far.

lisadeviluk1.jpgLisa and the Devil is another release that American fans saw from Kino last Fall, and are certainly curious about why they should open their wallets again. In this case the answer is still a resounding yes, this is worth the money. The transfer and sound are nearly identical, with both discs looking and sounding better than ever, but the key selling points are in Arrow's attention to context, as usual. Here's what Arrow have to say about Lisa and the Devil:
From the father of Italian Horror Mario Bava (Black Sunday, The Whip and the Body) comes a tale of nightmarish surrealism and supernatural suspense.

Lisa (Elke Sommer) - an American tourist travelling in Spain - loses her tour party and seeks refuge in the tumbledown mansion of a blind countess after being guided there by the distinctly satanic butler of the house, Leandro (Telly Savalas - Horror Express, Kojak). The Son of the Countess notices Lisa's striking resemblance to his dead lover and pursues her as a night of murder, strange eroticism and dark hallucinations begins.
This is more of the Bava to which we have become accustomed. Garish colors, surreal photographer, and a wickedly seductive Telly Savalas make Lisa and the Devil, and even it's butchered American sister House of Exorcism, worth checking out. While the Kino edition also had both cuts of the film, the Tim Lucas commentary, and some trailers, Arrow Video adds an introduction from Alan Jones as well as a featurette discussing the creation and editing of both versions with interviews from Lamberto Bava, and Alberto Pezzotta. Worth the price of admission on its own is the booklet featuring new writing from Stephen Thrower, who is always a joy to read, and yet another stunning original cover art from Graham Humphreys, who is on a major roll lately. If you're Region B capable, this is the one you want. It has everything that the Kino edition does and more. Definitely recommended.

Around the Internet:
  • mightyjoeyoung

    "Black Sunday is the quintessential Italian witchcraft film, even fifty years later, it hasn't been matched."
    I haven´t seen this one in years....maybe time for revisit......thanks for the list, Mr Hurtado.

  • EugeneRushmore

    thx j. your taste in film is out there. i've been reading your posts,
    and trying to watch many of your recommendations. i have been
    digging through the eighties horror comedy genre. i'm not sure
    what this says about me, but you just don't see movies like this
    anymore. nor am i sure they can be made with the same gusto.
    i think the period in time washed through the pictures in a way
    that can't be duplicated today. i was paging through some imdb
    lists, and found a little gem called "blood diner". by no means is
    it special, but it is so unpolished, laced with trippy oddities, and
    all you can do is scratch your head. i like what you are doing at
    twitch, and always get laughs and kicks from most of your picks.

  • J Hurtado

    Comments like this make me really happy. I'm glad I've been able to steer you in the right direction.

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